The Orwells Are Terrible Human Beings
The Chicago brat rock crew talks embracing their bad reputation and a new sound on their forthcoming album: "We're not gonna be kickin' it with Kanye any time soon. And that's okay."
It's been a minute since we heard from Chicago suburb brat-rock outfit The Orwells—more than two years to be exact. Following the success of 2014's Disgraceland, the quintet broke into the mainstream with their standout single "Who Needs You," landing them play in Apple commercials and the festival circuit alike. Now the group has returned with a new fully-realized sound and aesthetic on their follow-up Terrible Human Beings, which drops Friday on Atlantic subsidiary Canvasback.
The new album found the group recording in Chicago legend Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studios and reunited them with acclaimed Arctic Monkeys producer Jim Abbiss. The re-vamped experience brought a rich sound and depth to Terrible Human Beings, a record that details everything from tour party lifestyles to their love-hate relationship with hometown fans.
Orwells frontman Mario Cuomo and guitarist Matt O'Keefe recently stopped by the VICE office in LA for an episode of Noisey Radio on Beats 1 to break down crafting the album and the stories behind some of their biggest new hits. Listen to the episode here and read on for an extended version of the interview below.
Noisey: What has this year been like for you recording this new album?
Mario Cuomo: Boring as hell.
Matt O'Keefe: Yeah, It's been a pretty slow year. We recorded the album in February 2016, and It's gonna come out February 2017, so there's a lot of time just sitting around and not doing anything in between.
Let's go back to that first record then, the success of "Who Needs You" and everything that did for you guys. What made you guys want to start The Orwells? For people who don't know. Talk about like the origin of the band.
Cuomo: We were all growing up together, and some of us were related. I think in our area, it was either like sports or music. A lot of people who were very into sports did that, and there were a lot of kids that were in bands. So we were just on the band side of stuff and practiced, you know, we made it kinda like a sports practice like every Friday, write a song. And we did that for like four years. We were like 14, 15 when we started.
What was it that you were listening to then, what was inspiring the sounds?
O'Keefe: There was a lot of oldish stuff, but you know we were all huge fans of—kind of our first songs we wrote were kinda direct steals from The Black Lips. We were like, obsessed with them growing up. But other than that, I don't know, it was just like we were kind of all discovering The Kinks and shit like that at the same time and we kind of bonded on that. Those kinds of bands.
The Black Lips being actually one of the first bands to sign to Vice Records, and you guys covered them as well. Did you guys reach out to Cole eventually and were like, we fuck with you, let's cover this song? Or how did that work?
Cuomo: Well like we just always wanted to open for them. That was one of the main goals of being in this band, and then when one New Years we finally got to play with them, it was a very surreal thing. It was just really, really great to talk to them, and not as just like little fan boys but, a person. That was a big deal for us.
What was it about their sound that you guys like so much?
O'Keefe: When we grew up, we were really big fans of The Strokes and their whole kind of very stiff kind of, we don't really wanna be here kind of. They were just like, tried to be very very cool. And then when we saw The Black Lips for the first time and they were just like whipping their dicks out and doing that stuff, it was just like a breath of fresh air to be like, ok well you could actually jump run and have fun on a stage and do that, and their songs are just great songs, you know?
Cuomo: Yeah it was like, woah, you don't have to have the coolest hair?
And the song you chose to cover, "Salvation in a Parking Lot," is pretty much a joke too. You guys call it a rip off. Talk about that.
Cuomo: Sounds a fuckload like a song that they would make, right?
O'Keefe: Yeah, we beat ourselves to the punch on people. It's a nice way to avoid being criticized for something by another band if you just make fun of yourself for sounding like a band before they get a chance to.
So let's talk about the success of "Who Needs You." Was that expected? When it started to pick up steam, what did that feel like?
O'Keefe: I wouldn't say expected, but I think I knew when we wrote it that we had something. We hadn't really tapped into anything before we had written that song and that felt really big and it could actually compete with the other musicians, with bigger musicians that were making music and, I don't know, I just think in it's vagueness it's been easy to apply to anything that's happening in America so it could have this kind of longevity that other songs don't really get. Because you know when we wrote it, it was because they had just announced that they were gonna pull, was it 2011, 12 and they announced that they were gonna pull troops out of Iraq so we wanted to write this joke song of like, not a joke song but a throwback song of I'm coming home and stuff like that. About soldiers coming home back to their girls and that's what came out.
Cuomo: We were giving a shot at like a somewhat—not patriotic, but sort of a political thing, to like, just try it because why not, I've tried to write a song about every type of thing. So that was just like our shot at that kind of idea for a song. And it just turned out pretty well.
What was that like when it started getting picked up? Did you kinda like have to hit the road harder? More people coming to shows?
Cuomo: It did really well like, licensing. People wanted to use it for stuff, and like you know it's like, not rock n roll and whatever that sounds whatever style songs like that don't exist anymore, but yeah that stuff does like a ton, and it was used in a bunch or stuff and like it or not that's like how a lot of people hear about stuff. And like, it's in an Apple commercial, but as a kid I probably wouldn't have like, listened to Gorillaz if it wasn't for an iPod Mini commercial. So it's like, what's the difference? That stuff does a lot, so I think that helped too. Just like marketing and whatever it was used in.
Let's get into the new album. Talk about what went into this lyrically first. You mentioned writing pseudo-political songs, was there a political element to this album?
Cuomo: Yeah, there's like a little current events stuff, a little. It's very, like all the songs are very... material. It's not so autobiographical. There's a lot of like, made up shit. There's like random stories and stuff and a lot of fiction. Some stuff that was going on at the time. The material lyrically and stuff is a lot different from each other.
And musically, were you excited to try new things? Were you trying to advance upon your original structure?
O'Keefe: Yeah I mean, trying new things I think is a little bit of a, you know not. I mean the first producer we ever worked with was Dave Sitek, and he said this thing that I've always thought was really brilliant, which was that it's not about what you can add, but what you can take away. So when we were making the music, it wasn't, "How can we expand, how can we push forward?" What we were doing was, what was the bad stuff that we can strip away from what we did on the last record? And then I think we just have a much simpler sound and it makes it bigger somehow.
Who recorded this one?
O'Keefe: Jim Abbiss, who is yeah great. He flew out to Chicago for it. Usually he only works outside of London, but we just wanted to stay home and do it because we're the laziest band in rock and roll. And he flew his family out, they had a little vacation halfway through. And yeah we like, there's a studio by our place called Electrical Audio, and it was just really nice to like, be able to go out on a Friday night and not just think about making a record. It kind of didn't feel like so much of work because it was like Friday we can go out and see our homies and then come in the next day and get right back at it.
Was Steve Albini around there at all?
Cuomo: I never saw him once. Rumor has it he was washing a dish upstairs once.
What were the vibes like in Electrical Audio? That's a great place to record. Pretty open, homey vibes.
Cuomo: Yeah, it was ridiculously chill. We did the vocals for one song in the bathroom. I was like, it sounds pretty good in here, so they just like mic'd it up like for the record right next to the toilet like totally, it was very very relaxed, do what you need.
O'Keefe: Yeah, it's a great studio, I mean it's easily the best experience we've ever had recording. Anywhere.
Cuomo: Like, we only want to make records there now.
What was it like working with Jim? You know, he was coming off the Arctic Monkeys albums and stuff, what was that like?
Cuomo: Jim is like the coolest just man, and he's like super nice to talk to and he's the best at his job that we've ever worked with in life. It felt like we were like really in it with a producer but super comfortable at the same time. Like, no pressure and he just like played his role, really well. A producer's supposed to add to it, be like a fifth member or a sixth in our situation and he did that, whereas I feel like a lot of producers are like, you know, overpaid engineers or something. They'll like sit there and like, can talk cool but he really did his part.
What was it do you think that he brought, if you could sum it up? Or just maybe some advice he gave you.
O'Keefe: I think one of his best talents is that, he could criticize your song, but at the same time he motivates you and he makes you understand why, what the problem is and how to fix it. Because sometimes we've worked with producers who, even if their idea is good, I think the way they present it to you, you get a little bit of like, "This ain't your song dude, fuck you." But with him, he does it in a way that makes sense and he kind of slowly will guide you into a much bigger idea that he saw lurking there that we might have missed.
Well put. So, with this album, are there any grand expectations?
Cuomo: Well we kind of gave up on that shit. Like, we're not gonna be kickin' it with Kanye any time soon. And that's okay.
You'd be surprised. What about the title? Where did the title Terrible Human Beings come from?
O'Keefe: I think it's a little bit of like I was saying earlier about calling "Salvation in the Parking Lot" a Black Lips rip-off. It was to kind of like throw what people would say about it into their faces, and that's a little bit of the same thing with Terrible Human Beings, because back in Chicago we do not have the best reputation around town.
Cuomo: We're not the most liked boys on the block, for whatever reason that might be.
O'Keefe: We champion the reputation we have.
Cuomo: Take the words out of their mouth, give it to 'em.
There's something about Chicago press—if you don't play by their rules, it'll come after you. Have you ever felt vindicated by the Chicago scene here?
O'Keefe: Not the press, but yeah the bands, the Chicago bands don't really like us. We're uh, they got a problem with us and a lot of DePaul kids got a problem with us.
Cuomo: Yeah I don't know what the fuck is going on. I don't know what the fuck we did.
Anytime you make it, they hate on you.
Cuomo: Everybody's got beef. We didn't even do anything. I dunno.
Let's get into the songs. Lyrically, what are you talking about on "Put the Body in the Bayou?"
O'Keefe: That's the first one where we were like, oh yeah, that's a cut for the record. It then kinda just set the blueprint for what the rest of the songs were gonna be. Once we found that then we were like let's go down that path.
Cuomo: That song's not really about any sort of one thing. It's, you know, a lot of randomness that sounded cool. You know, not a whole lot of deep stuff going on there. Just uh, whatever I though sounded fun to fit into the song.
Was there like, a seeping in of an Americana vibe starting to come in on these early songs? Because I was watching the music video and I kinda caught that a little bit. Were you listening to older records that had that vibe?
O'Keefe: Yeah, I think we've always kind of had that vibe. I mean, I'm at least pretty fascinated with all that American folklore and stuff like that so, and that always kind of sneaks itself into songs.
Let's get into "Buddy" real quick. That's another upbeat one reminiscent of "Who Needs You" a little bit.
Cuomo: As far as "Buddy" goes lyrically, that's probably the least like the rest of the record. It's not like the best representation of what the rest of the record's gonna sound like, and it's still pretty childish, and that's the only bullshit kind of like bounce-around hookup song. Running around the country being a dumb-ass type thing. But there's not really any of that on the rest of the record. That's like the one song that could have been on another record that we could have done. But, you know, it was just like a fun, short, little fun one to like make things not so serious.
Are there any big goals for this next record as it starts to roll out that you'd like to accomplish this coming year?
O'Keefe: Yeah, I mean I don't know, nothing kind of like "I wanna meet this person, I wanna go there, I wanna do this and then play on that show." I just hope that people really dig the record. I just hope that, you know, it makes kids start bands and I hope they rip it off and you know, I just hope people dig it.
Cuomo: If we can contribute to like, making rock music in the public eye less of a joke, that would really make me happy.
Do you feel that it's looked at as a joke right now in the public?
Cuomo: I mean, yeah it's like what do you think's gonna happen this year? I mean, we're probably not gonna play the MTV Video Music Awards because it's not that time. Like at at one point not too long ago it was like The Hives and lThe Vines tearing it up on TV. Like, if we could help a little bit to make something happen like that again where kids could turn on TV and see something like a band and not like, you know, ten dudes dressed up as hillbillies with banjos and like... you know it's a very skewed thing that rock n roll is right now. It's very like, dead heavy, throw up the horns. It's not good. So, if we could just help to undo that a little bit, that's all I want.
That's sounds like a great goal. I think you're right that bands like you have the responsibility now, to keep doing it at the very least. Are you seeing the shows getting more and more rowdy and the kids knowing the lyrics and a growing fanbase?
Cuomo: I don't know, I think we won't see that until the big tour after the record comes out. So we're looking forward to the response and everything. Getting back to punishing ourselves in a van.
What's this new tour gonna look like? Pretty aggressive?
Cuomo: Yeah, it starts out with a month in Europe, and then something like a month and a half in the US or something, so pretty decent.
What do you do to stay occupied on tour?
Cuomo: Drink. Chicks. [Laughs] Nahhh. Uh I don't know, yeah, drink.
O'Keefe: Just drink.
Cuomo: Yeah, drinking helps a lot.
I feel like your Misfits rip-off "Open Your Eyes" it's kind of fitting right now. Everybody is kind of in this gloomy post-election vibe. Were you guys big Misfits fans growing up?
Cuomo: Yeah, I was. I was always very into them. Very mad that I didn't get to see them. Very mad that I missed the Misfits this year because I feel like I might have missed my only chance to see that. Even though they're all like old and shit and nasty it would still be nice to catch it. So, hopefully they, you know, kick off a tour or something so I can get to see. The band that I used to skate around town to growing up so, yeah, they have a place in my heart.
What was it that they did for you, like sonically and musically?
Cuomo: I mean they were pretty like, cause I'm not like a huge like, punk dude. I'm not like, oooh Casualties maaan, like most of that shit like sounds like trash to me. It's not like melodic or catchy or... it's not pretty it's very ugly sounding. Even like the whole bond thing with their fuckin' spiked jackets and bullshit I don't like that. But uh, yeah, they were like a punk band because like people put them in the same category as like really nasty sounding shit but it's like super catchy stuff and really pretty sounding to me and there's just not a lot of bullshit. It's not up its own ass but they have these really great songs that are... and I like lyrically how he's like writing songs about different stuff and maybe that helped me a little bit growing up. Not specifically talking about one thing like being able to write about a lot of different content and you know, stories and stuff as opposed to like, you know, too many love songs or just one thing if you beat somebody over the head with that, I don't see how they could like listen to your band for that long. You gotta keep changing it up content-wise and talk about a lot of different stuff.
Photos by Kelly Puleo.